September 29, 2007

The Projects

HUD says HANO can demolish four housing developments in New Orleans:
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees HANO, announced that it had approved the application for demolition of 4,500 units of the aging brick buildings that have housed the city's poor for more than a half century.

Within two to three months, wrecking crews will descend upon the so-called "Big Four" developments: C.J. Peete in Central City, St. Bernard in the 7th Ward, B.W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte, which borders Treme.
Mixed-income housing, along the lines of River Garden, will replace the four housing developments. As HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in November 2005, “We are not going to build traditional public housing anymore.”

In New Orleans, when you tear down a building, you are never just tearing down a building. Let’s see exactly how we built “traditional public housing” in New Orleans.

Lafitte Housing Development
, built in 1941:

B.W. Cooper Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1941, second phase (pink) in 1954:

C.J. Peete Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1941, second phase (demolished in 2004) in 1955:

St. Bernard Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1942, second phase (pink) built in 1943:

Iberville Housing Development, built in 1941, but not set for demolition:

Notice the layout of the first phases of the housing developments built in the 40s. The New York Times noticed in November 2006:
Built at the height of the New Deal, the city’s public housing projects have little in common with the dehumanizing superblocks and grim plazas that have long been an emblem of urban poverty. Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States.


But if the sight of workers dynamiting an abandoned housing complex was a cause for celebration in Chicago’s North Side, the notion is stupefying in New Orleans, whose public housing embodies many of those same New Urbanist ideals: pedestrian friendly environments whose pitched roofs, shallow porches and wrought iron rails have as much to do with 19th-century historical precedents as with late Modernism.

More specifically, they were inspired by local developments such as the 1850s Pontalba Apartments and late-19th “Garden City” proposals, whose winding tree-lined streets and open green spaces were seen as an antidote to the filth and congestion of the industrial city.

The low red-brick housing blocks of the Lafitte Avenue project, in the historically black neighborhood of Treme, for example, are scaled to fit within the surrounding neighborhood of Creole cottages and shotgun houses. To lessen the sense of isolation, the architects extended the surrounding street grid through the site with a mix of roadways and pedestrian paths. As you move deeper into the complex, the buildings frame a series of communal courtyards sheltered by the canopies of enormous oak trees. Nature, here, was intended to foster spiritual as well as physical well being.

That care was reflected in the quality of construction as well. Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex.

They would be almost impossible to reproduce in the kind of bottom-line developments that have become the norm.
The second phases, and the housing developments constructed after the 40s, do not embody those New Urbanist ideals quite as much in their layouts. Wanting to change that, HUD and HANO demolished some public housing and rebuilt it based on some of those ideals.

St. Thomas Housing Development, now River Garden:

The St. Thomas, built in 1941, was a contemporary development with the first phases of the four set for demolition. I can not find a map of the original development online. I assume its layout was similar to its contemporary developments. If so, the new River Garden as a housing development looks less appealing from above than the courtyards and walkways of the 1940s developments.

Desire Housing Development, now the New Desire; the Google map is old but you can see the layout of the new development:

Fischer Housing Development, the old high rise was demolished for the new Fischer homes (yellow) and the old Fischer low-rise complex (blue) is still there – once again, the Google map is old but you can see the layout:

Guste Housing Development, the new Guste homes (yellow) and old complex (blue), including the high rise – once again, old pics:

Why do I point this out? In another article written in February 2007, the NY Times explains:
The housing agencies’ tabula rasa planning mentality recalls the worst aspects of the postwar Modernist agenda, which substituted a suburban model of homogeneity for an urban one of diversity. The proposal for “traditional-style” pastel houses, set in neat little rows on uniform lots, is a model of conformity that attacks the idea of the city as a place where competing values coexist.

This is reinforced by the plan’s tendency to isolate the new housing from the rest of the city. Often arranged along dead-end cul-de-sacs, the proposed developments lack the mix of big and small buildings, residential apartments and retail shops that could weave them into the surrounding urban fabric.

The point is not to return people to the same housing conditions that existed before Hurricane Katrina, but to distinguish between failures of social policy and design policy. Architects can’t determine the economic mix of residents in public housing developments nor provide education and health services. Their job is to give physical form to social and cultural values.
New buildings alone will not accomplish the mixed-income housing that HUD desires. And new buildings aren't automatically better than the old ones.

If anything, the sturdy period construction of the older projects are the neighborhoods’ biggest asset. Like the old warehouses that attracted residents to the Warehouse District, so, too, could the older and better-planned projects, once renovated and modernized, possibly attract new residents and certainly could adequately house former residents.

If HUD wants to tear down anything, it could focus on the blighted housing scattered throughout the city. A lot of that existed before the storm. HUD could demolish those buildings and put up as many pastel-colored houses as it wants, at the same time contributing to the recovery of various neighborhoods by removing rundown property and replacing it with new development.

"Traditional public housing" in New Orleans is worth saving. A different issue is how public housing is traditionally managed in New Orleans. That is what needs to be changed.

[ADDED] Clay in the comments offers up this related link.


Sophmom said...

I was surprised by this line in the T-P article: "At the same time, the agency has faced difficulty luring former residents back and said it currently has more units ready for occupancy than it has residents to live in them." Huh?

I was also heartened to read the end of the article, in which Quigley promised a vigorous fight. As an employee of a *cough* demolition contractor *cough* I've seen this sad path traveled before and know how it usually ends. The demolition just starts.

It seems like it would have been of value for this to have gone differently. I've seen the plans, looked hard at the overhead shots of these communities. I hope HUD/HANO finds some way to make this right.

Great post.

jeffrey said...

Of course, the HANO demolition scheme isn't about building better public housing, it's about removing the publicly housed.

Leigh C. said...

This is indeed symbolic demolition of what is perceived to be an undesirable population, not reasonable demolition of buildings damaged beyond repair. Projects in NYC are monolithic marching monsters compared to what is in this city. I hate to think of what could replace Cooper or C.J. Peete...

Anonymous said...

Im sorry but I cannot agree with you. I thought about the project demolition long and hard and it finally came down to “Do I want the projects or the historic neighborhoods that surround many of them." I mean, since Saint Thomas has been demolished and replaced with River Garden, that 200 year old neighborhood surround the old Saint Thomas has gotten so much new investment. You can fix up the old projects all you want and I know they are great construction, but the people that we want living in the buildings; and who will bring back the dead historic neighborhoods around the projects do not want to live in those buildings. It basically comes down to the question, “Do I want the 60 year old projects or the 160 year old neighborhood". You have to make a choice.

Clay said...

Here's a City Journal proposal for the projects:

The newest units were in the worst shape and should be demolished. The oldest ones need a bit of work to bring them up to code, but I think it's worth it. I've had some experience with construction of this era and construction back then was better than all but the highest quality modern construction. The bricks are amongst the most durable housing in the entire city. Something should be done with them (NOT demolition).

Putting things back the way they were might not be the best thing, though. I like the idea of fixing them up nice and selling them in a program modeled after Habitat for Humanity.

m.d. said...

Clay: Yep. And thanks for the link.

Anonymous: Thanks for disagreeing and commenting. I don't think it is a choice between the buildings or the neighborhood. My point is that renovating the existing older buildings would be better for the neighborhood than trying to mimic the existing style and building a brand new "traditional" neighborhood.

Cero said...

I would have favored renovation - the buildings and the layout are beautiful.

Great post, and thank you for it.

mominem said...

The housing projects failed in their primary purpose. That was to provide safe healthful housing for low income citizens.

The reasons for that failure are many and design was one of them. The developments cut off existing streets and isolated the developments of the surrounding communities.

Redeveloping the existing structures as mixed income housing is possibly an alternative, however the renovation of sixty year old masonry structures with in adequate electrical and mechanical systems which have been inadequately maintained for many years.

Pistolette said...

I can't feel sorry for old public housing. It had its chance, and blew it. It seems like you're more preoccupied with architecture here, so I'll give that to you - the old public housing is far prettier, and laid out in a more appealing urban way. However, I know you have been inside these neglected buildings and have seen the dismal conditions that people were expected to live in. HANO ran those places horribly and treated human beings like animals, and I do not plan on giving them a second chance.

While the St Thomas projects are not as architecturally pleasing they are far better for the community. Crime is reduced, investment in the area has skyrocketed, and the people who live in those houses not only have far better living conditions (and health conditions) but they take pride in and care for the new area.

I find it surprising that the NY Times did so little research. It's easy to say that suburbia = homegeneity, and urban = diversity, however, this has not been the case in Nola public housing. Our old housing projects were completely homogeneous (almost totally monoracial - not very diverse at all). Yet the new St Thomas projects (albeit with their icky architecture) are very diverse - people of all different races and incomes living in one area. Why is that so bad?

Puddinhead said...

I'm in agreement with mominem and anonymous on this one. Warehousing of the poor by concentrating them in high-density (or even "medium-density", if you insist on comparing NOLA projects to Chicago highrise projects, for example) developments does neither the community as a whole nor the residents as individuals any favors. I spent enough time as a child growing up going to school and playing playground ball with some kids from Desire-Florida and then a long enough stint as an adult in a job where I'd spend most of my day meeting with project residents in their apartments to figure out that when a child grows up completely and constantly surrounded by poverty and the ills that afflict disproportionately those living in poverty that child has an extremely hard time seeing past their surroundings to any type of more desirable future. I'd be wealthy if I'd had a dime for every time I had a young (late teens-early 20's) resident tell me that there was no sense in their looking into available ways to fund post-high school education, even if it were of the trade school variety if college wasn't their cup of tea. "Look around you, mister...that ain't for people from 'here'!" Concentration of the poor instills a fatalism from childhood. Are there hard-working, honorable residents in every development? Probably most of the actual adult residents fit that description. Problem is, it's awfully tough to tell a child they should look to the diligent wage earning adult in the next door apartment as a role model rather than the thug upstairs when the thug is tooling around in the tricked-out Monte Carlo while the job holder is dining on Vienna sausage and commodity macaroni & cheese. To a lot of children this is the only reality they see surrounding them; a short life "living' large" ends up being pretty attractive when compared to the long hours-no reward lifestyle that is the only example of honest living they live with because all of those who "make it" sure as hell move out of the projects as soon as they do.

For those who speak so eloquently for the "saving" of the brick structures that compose most of our public housing, I have to ask...are you going to be one of the middle class families who move into Lafitte, for example, after the buildings have been rehabbed? Or is the idea that it'll be OK if we stash all of the poor together, away from the "rest of us", as long as we do it in nicely refurbished buildings? You know, I spent full days in the St. Thomas in the late 80's, and there had just been a mega-sized investment in renovation done. Inside a lot of those apartments were fairly modernized kitchens, new fixtures and appliances, fireplaces with custom marble surrounds...nicer than a lot of the market apartments I was also going in at the time in New Orleans East. Some were being kept up by their residents, some weren't. But the point is that the moment you stepped out the apartment door back into the stairwell, into the "common" areas, you were right back in the ghetto. Step outside the building, and it's a 360 degree view that screams "slum". One of the main reasons? No one "owns" anything outside of their own apartment. In big complexes practically everything is "common" area, and residents don't have the real authority to police those who would loiter, litter, and deface the development structures. That's pretty much straight out of the mouth of New Urbanist-extrordinaire Andres Duany, spoken in direct reference to allowing St. Bernard to reopen just as it previously existed.

Anyway....way too wordy, as usual. My point is that opening the doors to all the housing project apartments and cramming the residents back into them as was before, even if there is a sizable lobby right now pressing for just that to happen, doesn neither the residents nor the community a service.

m.d. said...

I see a few issues being discussed in comments: where people live, how people live, and who lives there.

My post deals with where people live (the buildings) and suggests that the existing older construction would have an equal or better effect on how people live in the housing projects.

I am not really addressing who lives in the housing projects. Every resident of the city should have adequate housing.

"Mixed-income" neighborhoods is HUD's goal. HUD could better reach this goal by taking advantage of the existing construction.

"Warehousing of the poor" is how the projects evolved, not how they were planned. Any plan that by design creates a "completely homogeneous" concentration of any social category will probably fail to reach its goals - unless, of course, your goal is to create a completely homogeneous concentration of a specific social category.

The way the first phases of the 1940s housing developments were laid out did isolate some parts of the developments from the neighborhood. In later construction phases, even more streets were cut off. This could be changed.

Puddinhead said...

But m.d., that's one of the points I was trying (ineffectively, as usual) to make about the current developments--as long as the bulk of the existing apartments are reserved for subsidized housing (and I assume no one here whose main concern is saving the actual brick buildings themselves is advocating a sort of "gentrification" of the projects by converting most of the apartments into market-rate units) you're not going to find families who can afford to pay for their own housing who are willing to move into the projects. And if the bulk of the developments remain subsidized housing, you're also not going to see retail and services willing to locate nearby.

You have to always keep in mind the mindset of the "general public", by which I mean those who are paying for their own housing. Even most of those who are all for there existing sufficient public housing opportunities to meet the community's needs would not be willing to offer up their family as part of the market-rate component in a refurbished Lafitte if the proportions were set at anything like 50/50 subsidized/market-rate. The story of public housing developments in NOLA has been way too dismal for way too many years (and not just because of HANO mismanagement; the predators themselves who prey on the residents of the projects deserve at least as much blame) to think that anyone should think otherwise.

The German said...

My first thought when looking at the images of the projects was that they look "isolated" from their respective neighborhoods. They look like islands, the colored line outlining them might as well be a moat, this kind to keep the residents in.

Puddinhead is right. No one "owns" anything in these developments. The new stuff may look like suburbia, but it gives the residents a sense of ownership; the right to scream "get off my lawn".

Fixing the units up and keeping the rules the same will ensure the same results: poverty and crime.

Instead of building and maintaining huge residential complexes that the government cannot or will not maintain or police, just provide these residents with housing vouchers. Pay part of their rent, low rate mortgage for a home.

Anything is better than the status quo. No matter how pretty and well built the projects were, they are still cages for the poor.

E said...

I love this post and have a lot to say about the topic. I am not at all in favor of immediate demolition of the projects but not because I believe the design of the New Deal era of the complexes in question reflect progressive values. Those projects are awful. In my post today, I provide a possible alternative public housing prototype that is being tried in other cities. Please see
I hope what I've got from today adds to the discussion people are having here.

Sophmom said...

E, I got a chance to read your post at your blog. It was excellent. Am I to understand that your point is that you're not in favor of immediate demolition because you don't trust HUD/HANO to handle this process "correctly"?

E said...

There are a number of good reasons to oppose immediate demolition, one of which is that nobody can trust HANO to have properly evaluated alternatives to demolition or to have an acceptable plan in place to redevelop the land. Why spend the money to knock down the buildings if we have nothing viable to replace them with? The gist of my post, or what I tried to convey, is that there are new public housing design principles that trump both the "progressive" ones of the new deal era and the ugly suburban style of modernity.

Puddinhead said...

Just many here have at least driven around in River Garden? And more importantly, how many have driven around in River Garden who have also walked around in the old St. Thomas? I say "walked" because as with most of the local projects, there was essentially only one through street (Annunciation), so a driver didn't really get a good appreciation of the real layout.

Whereas I expected completely phony Disney-fied versions of New Orleans architecture in the new development, I was pleasantly surprised by both the design and execution. There is no question that what is there right now much more closely resembles a "typical" urban New Orleans neighborhood than what was there before, in appearance and functionality. There is nothing "suburban" about it.

E said...

Isn't this exciting? Fresh FBI investigation into Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of HUD!!! Front page of today's Times-Pic. Life's good.

E said...

I live pretty close by to the River Garden development and today I finally had time to stroll over there. I took ground-level photos so we can all be on the same page about what the place looks like. You can see 'em at

Puddinhead said...

"One for one" replacement should be a guiding principle. It must be applied, however, to the metropolitan area as a whole, and not strictly confined to the footprint of the existing projects. Follow a course where the same number of subsidized units are crammed right back into the same space and you keep the same problems. Reality is that if you're going to expect families who can afford to do so to be willing to pay market rates for some percentage of the units, the percentage reserved for subsidized housing will have to be kept low enough that the development not be seen as a "housing project" per se.

How to make up the "lost" subsidized units? There's plenty of blocks in the neighborhoods of our town that have one or two properties that could be utilized either via Section 8 vouchers (for existing rental stock)or by redevelopment of abandoned and/or adjudicated properties specifically for the purpose. Care should be taken to "scatter" the properties used such that no more than one or two are used in each two- or three-block large "micro-neighborhood" such that the new families in the neighborhood are seen by the existing residents as just that--the new family. Buying out half a block's worth of houses to convert to Section 8, for example, only causes the existing neighbors to bolt in fear of losing the equity they've built up in their homes if the neighborhood becomes known as one of strictly "government" housing.

m.d. said...

e, thanks for posting those pics

puddinhead, that's basically what I was getting at in my post. "One to one" is the only fair policy, but that one doesn't have to the same one, nor does each one have to be next to each other. I see the old construction as assets in their present form, that's why I think they do not need to be torn down.

Puddinhead said...

m.d., I understand that some of the actual structures themselves are still sound construction-wise, and likely are of better materials than whatever will end up replacing them. But a rehab of the existing buildings would trouble me on two counts. One, the cost to renovate and modernize structures that are that old and have had that much deferred maintenance to bring them up to today's federal standards for public housing might well be much higher than the cost to replace. Two (and this is the one that can't be gauged by a spreadsheet), I just don't see families who can afford the market rate units that any "mixed income" redevelopment of the projects would have to include being willing to move their families into buildings that were New Orleans housing projects no matter how well they're renovated. We'll end up with renovated buildings, but unable to fill the market rate units that are supposed to help pay for the project. And if the entire "new" development is left to be re-filled with only subsidized-rent families, then the surrounding neighborhoods stay essentially the same as they are now, with no new influx of business, services, retail, etc. that a more "income integrated" development might attract.